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Stepping on Stereotypes

Words by | Photos by Thai Neave
Stepping on Stereotypes

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Coachella, Burning Man, Glastonbury and Latitude – to name a few, are a hotbed of great music, chill vibes, and good times. The festivals have a reputation as not only being one of the best indicators of what’s hot in music, but in street fashion, too. As the filtered selfies flood social media, we see 70s overalls with bellbottom flares, fringed cowgirl vests, and adorable summer jumpsuits. But we also get a glimpse of the latest in cultural appropriation. Religious and tribal attire, such as Native American headdresses and Hindu bindis, grace the heads of festival-goers, while hashtag activists butt heads with those who cry ‘PC gone mad’. The debate around cultural appropriation rears its head once more.

To some, using a pretty set of religious jewels to decorate one’s forehead or donning a feathery Native American headdress with no cultural reason to do so is nothing more than an innocuous attempt to make a fashion statement. But to others, those objects are much more than a superficial costume. They represent thousands of years of tradition, intertwined with the culture they live every day. Taking those items out of context and stripping them of their true meaning is seen as distasteful at best, and more often as flat-out offensive.

For years, the west has incorporated customs and rituals from around the world into our own cultural canon, and diluted the significance of others. Japanese kanji are sported as tattoos for their aesthetic, rather than their meaning, and ‘ethnic’ food, which is simply ‘food’ to some, is romanticised as an exotic adventure. A particularly high profile example of cultural appropriation was apparent at the 2015 Met Gala in New York — the Costume Institute’s event celebrating the opening of its annual exhibition — for which this year’s theme is ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, on show through to August 16. According to the Institute, the presentation is an examination and celebration of “the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fuelled the fashionable imagination for centuries.”

As celebrities ascended the blood-red steps of the Metropolitan Museum, Vogue’s André Léon Talley was on the beat. “Do you like Chinese food?” he asked Cher. Approached by a radiant Sofia Vergara, he demanded, “Do you ever just splurge and binge on Chinese takeaway?” On the one hand, these are not unreasonable questions by any means: Chinese food is exceptionally delicious, and we all like to reserve the right to intersperse cardboard box dining with our regular meals on the odd occasion.

However, though Talley is arguably known more for his amiable, larger-than-life personality than for shrewd journalistic tactics, couldn’t there have been more pertinent questions to ask a starlet at this particular event than whether she likes to indulge in chow mein and egg rolls? We’re not so deficient in optimism as to suggest these were humourless questions, nor that Chinese food isn’t an integral part of its country’s culture and history. But when such fragments of China’s identity — in this case, cheap takeout — become its sole visibility in Western culture, it feels problematic.

For more than a few digital commentators, the sheer spectacle of the ball was plainly evocative of Orientalism and Edward Said’s eponymous critique on the historic Western exoticisation of Asia, with parallels drawn between the night’s extravagant costumes and a wilfully-maintained fantasy of an opulent, hedonistic East. It seemed hardly a coincidence, either, that the exhibition’s title features a blatant reference to Lewis Carroll’s tales of a whimsical ‘wonderland’.

Further intensifying the malaise towards the Institute’s ‘homage’ was one of the more authentic dresses adhering to the evening’s theme: while the majority of other stars interpreted the theme via the Mandarin collars and brocade of domestic designers, Rihanna’s yellow imperial-inspired haute couture robe by Chinese designer Guo Pei became a widespread social media joke within hours, the dramatic train of the piece likened to a slice of pizza.

Perhaps not the Met’s intended statement, but a statement nonetheless: China, despite its looming shadow over the global economy, must travel through a Western prism to be accepted on the world stage. In the absence of a nuanced sense of the absurdity of reducing an entire country to a dress-up theme, this became a vampiric exercise in appropriating and assimilating Chinese culture, rather than celebrating it on its own terms. The Institute did emphasise that this was China through a Western lens — but isn’t this just a politically correct way of saying, ‘we know this isn’t really China, but this is the only way we will accommodate China into our cultural vernacular’?

Such a narrow framing of the terms of inquiry in this way — consciously focusing on the Western interpretation of other cultures — is not a new technique: the 1980s critical furore over the treatment of African artefacts within the Primitivism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, the Met’s NYC cultural counterpart, springs to mind. If the Met Gala is anything to go by, it would seem the Eurocentric bent of our major cultural institutions has remained constant in the intervening decades.

Jarune Uwajren makes a notable point about how “western culture invites, and at times, demands assimilation,” observing that an Indian American needs to wear a business suit to participate in dominant culture, whereas not all Americans need to own a sari — one is universally-accepted formal wear, while the other is a costume, celebrated as exotic and mystical. This example shows that there is a definitive difference in status between the dominant culture and what is deemed to be the exotic ‘Other’.

This difference in status is what turns the symbols and rituals of many cultures into an entertainment for the West; it’s why we see bindis as a cosmetic adornment, tribal headdresses as feathery headbands, and ‘China’ as a set of stereotypical signifiers. This shows us that at the moment, the West is doing a pretty good job of dominating culture in general. It seems there is a long way to go before suits and saris have the same amount of cultural capital.

To give the Met’s endeavour — as beautiful as it was misguided — a sliver of hope, perhaps this was all an elaborate attempt to create a ‘positive’ stereotype, a new way for China to exist in the international forum through the lucrative medium of fashion. Stereotypes are certainly not always negative, in the pejorative sense — often, in fact, we attribute ‘positive’ stereotypes to far-flung places and their people: Paris as the city of romance and beautiful strangers on mopeds, New York City as the ‘Centre of the Universe’.

However, even these positive viewpoints can have negative ramifications: when confronted in actuality, the less-than-fantastical reality of another country seems peculiar and odd to us, and sometimes disappointing, with rich traditions and customs too often reduced to the clueless kitsch of cultural performance, party costumes and cheap trinkets. Even ‘positive’ stereotypes perpetuate distorted caricatures: although some are slightly more flattering than others, all are reductive and limiting.

Stereotyping does owe its roots to primitive biological instincts from the dawn of cognizant man. Neatly categorising new phenomena — racial, cultural, religious, gendered – according to the code of the tribe we belong to is a knee-jerk mental apparatus conducive to social solidarity. Certainly, the reason why stereotypes become so ingrained in the general psyche is because they always carry some element of reality, reinforced by an observable commonality. We notice patterns and consistencies in different norms and habits, or behaviours made tangible and reinforced by texts, pictures and symbols. However, the manipulation of these innocent observations into mass generalisations beyond any immediate realm of relevance is the decisive stepping-stone towards self-serving ideologies — in simple terms, racism; and at worst, the systemic dehumanisation that can come with it.

In understanding the thought process behind and the effects of stereotype formation, do we still prefer to think of foreign peoples as theatrical mannequins, book-ended by gift shops and room service dinners, rather than as their authentic, myriad individual selves? Does this make them easier to understand — or just more palatable, possibly even easier to judge and to ridicule? The elusive, faceless stranger serves to strengthen our own national or cultural identities — in creating an image of ‘them’ we fortify the image of ‘us’ — but as modern travellers and global citizens with access to advanced technology and communicative tools, we need to do better than that. We ought to question that ingrained process a little bit more.

But where should we begin? In a world that is more diverse with every passing day, the ethics of cultural appropriation are hardly well-defined. The exact dynamics of cultural interchange vary from case to case. To unpack this further, let’s look at a textbook case of the intricacies of defining cultural appropriation: yoga. In practicing yoga, many westerners have grown to respect its origins in Hinduism, and recognise that yoga stems from a spiritual place. With this understanding, some would argue that such practice is a cultural exchange, rather than an instance of appropriation. By participating in this cultural exchange, a person is invited to be part of the ritual by those who take ownership of it. In this way, the participant shows respect for the ritual, and understands that it is not theirs to use as they wish, but rather, theirs to experience as a guest welcomed into a new context.

However, it can also be argued that wider appropriation of yoga has stemmed from that cultural exchange, and has turned it into the phenomenon we are familiar with today. To the west, yoga is now known as a great workout, and its meditative aspect is simply a useful tool for dealing with a stressful schedule. This way of conceptualising yoga in the west is so widely accepted that in a case that questioned whether or not yoga programmes in public schools is against the separation of church and state, a Californian judge decided that the religious aspects of yoga have been sufficiently diluted to make it an essentially secular practice.

This instance illustrates the core of the issue. There are many people who have every right to express the culture that they identify with, and are perfectly entitled to bring aspects of that culture into the western world. Many a famous fashion designer, artist, and musician has drawn inspiration from their roots, and given the western world a wealth of cultural icons. But such expressions stem from knowing what it is to be of a particular culture, in a certain time and place. Those who genuinely experience these cultures are able to present them in a way that tells their story — that shows us where they have come from and what it means to them. If the West is lucky enough to be invited to listen, then it is a privilege to share in that experience, and should be treated as such.

However, this can easily morph into an expectation of a showcase of cultural rituals, which runs the risk of perpetuating the dominance of Western culture. All this is not to imply we should feel terrible for wanting to experience certain stereotypical cultural experiences — icons are icons for a reason, after all. When we travel to Paris there’s a fair chance we’ll all ogle the Eiffel Tower while chewing on a pain au chocolat from an adorable boulangerie — but ideally it will all be taken with a grain of salt (not literally of course — the surplus sodium would quite ruin the pastry). We must be aware that these surface characteristics are not the ‘real’, or the definitive, French experience — as if there is such a thing. In turn, when tourists attend a haka performance in Rotorua, New Zealand, hopefully they are ‘present’ enough to understand that these are not actual warriors preparing for a battle — that they are choreographed professionals who, at the close of the show, will go home and watch television in their pyjamas like the rest of us. Maybe they’ll order Chinese takeout.

Despite the ongoing debate and ever-present fashion faux pas, there are signs that western society’s attitudes towards diversity are shifting. Increasingly we understand that the onus is not on the ‘Other’ to educate the West, but that cultures must build mutual relationships to bridge gaps and create understanding, before we can begin to make progress.
A sincere attempt at celebrating diversity and cultural awareness has to represent a movement towards a truly integrated society that doesn’t relegate, appropriate, or assimilate indigenous or alternate cultures but meets them on their own ground. Each culture has a story to tell, whether it be for the world, or for itself.
All that’s left to do is listen.

Published on July 15, 2015
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